Sermon - 23rd June 2019
Refugee Week: "Different Pasts, Shared Futures"
Scripture - Psalm 137, Isaiah 56:1-8
Today marks the end of National Refugee Week. As a church of two congregations, people seeking asylum are now part of our shared journey. This year’s theme is “different pasts – shared futures”. Our two congregations also share this theme: we may have different pasts, but we walk together in Christ as we share today and the future.
The UN recently revised their estimate the world’s human population to be 7.7 billion. Last week, UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) reported the number of refugees worldwide now to be over 70 million. While that is just 0.01% of the world’s population, it is 70 million people too many.
The 4 most dangerous countries are Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar (Burma). According to HM Government, there are around 120,000 refugees and a further 40,000 seekers of asylum in the UK, just 0.0025% of the population. Let us spare a thought and a prayer for the small country of Lebanon where refugees comprise 25% of their population.
As is traditional in many churches, the large candle reminds of Christ’s light in our world. Today, in our service, we light 7 candles, one of each 10 million refugees. Were we to keep silence for just one second for each refugee, we would be sat here for 2 years.
When we read the Bible, refugees are found everywhere… Adam and Eve, Cain, Noah, all of humanity at Babel, Abram and Sarai, Lot, Hagar, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Ruth, David, Elijah, Ezekiel, the 9 Northern Tribes of Israel, the 2 Southern Tribes of Judah, the Apostles, the early Christians, even Jesus Himself!
Some of us cannot truly imagine what it must be like to be forced to leave our homeland. Whatever the reason might be for leaving, it is a wrenching, emotional experience. People of faith look to Scripture in times of crisis: people often turn to the Psalms. Psalm 137 does not occur in the 3-year Sunday lectionary cycle, so we may never hear it. It reached popular culture in 1978 with Boney.M’s cover version, one of the top-10 selling singles of all time.
<Audio clip: Boney M "By the rivers of Babylon">
<1st Reading: Psalm 137:1-8>
Pain, loss, grief, anger, rage, revenge… these are just some of the emotions that this Psalm contains. The final verses of this Psalm shock, repel even repulse us. What brokenness and experience leads anyone to write something like this? When we consider the fate of ancient Israel – the Northern Kingdom of Israel whose people disappear into history; the double exile of Judah, the Southern Kingdom - maybe we can understand, even if we cannot condone its violent calls for revenge.
Human-beings can be cruel, and maybe one of the worst forms of cruelty is to mock and to taunt others: this is what the exiles experienced from their captors and we see in verses 1 to 3.
The Judean exile happened in two parts: firstly, in 597 BCE. The prophet Ezekiel was part of this group. Ten years later, more exiles reached Babylon with the terrible news that Jerusalem had been destroyed: not only the city, but the Temple, the house of God Himself. They had lost their homes, their city and the spiritual centre of the faith.
The central part of the Psalm, verses 4 to 6, are a call to remembrance, never to forget their identity. Remembering is important. Last weekend, we Mancunians remembered the 23rd anniversary of the IRA bomb; earlier this month, we remembered the sacrifice of many at the D-Day Landings. We do these things not to lose sight of what made us who we are.
The Psalm ends with those shocking verses inciting revenge. Just like the refugees of ancient Israel, there comes a point when a decision must be made: either to follow the path of hatred, revenge and allow that to become all-consuming, or take the opportunity to create a new future.
Throughout history, some refugees have made their land of safety their permanent home; others have returned to their homelands to rebuild and start again. This is what happened to the people of Judah, exiled to Babylon. 50 years after the destruction of Jerusalem, Babylon itself was conquered by the Persians, and their King Cyrus decreed that the Jews could return home. They had a choice: revenge or rebuild.
The book of the prophet Isaiah records the inspiration God offered the people.
<2nd Reading: Isaiah 56:1-7a>
The Kingdom is divided, ruled over by corrupt, self-serving individuals, doomed to failure, taking its people with them. No, I am not talking about this United Kingdom in 2019, exactly 3 years to the day after the referendum decision to leave the European Union, but about ancient Israel; however, the parallels are disturbingly familiar and poignant.
The writings of Book of the prophet Isaiah cover the period from 739-538 BCE. Because of the two centuries covered by the book, most Bible scholars today agree that the book does not have one single author, but at least three.
After the reign of King Solomon around 975 BCE, the Jewish people split into two Kingdoms: Judah, the Southern Kingdom, comprising mainly 2 tribes (Judah and Benjamin), with Jerusalem as its capital and was ruled over by a mixture of good and bad kings. Israel was the Northern Kingdom, comprising the other 10 Jewish tribes, with Samaria as its capital, and was ruled over by a succession of bad and corrupt kings.
In some respects, humankind has not changed much in 3,000 years. In every society, the weak, the poor and the powerless are kept down by the powerful, who, in turn, fear losing their grip on power, and who will say – or do - anything to retain their grip on power!
The first 39 of Isaiah’s 66 chapters point out the corruption of both kingdoms, albeit more so in the Northern Kingdom, nations that had turned a deaf ear to the Lord. Instead of serving God with humility and offering love to their neighbours, the nations offered meaningless sacrifices to God and committed injustices throughout the nation.
Beginning in 734 BCE, the Northern Kingdom, Israel, was conquered by the Assyrian Empire; its people were taken into slavery and became lost to history. As we learnt from our Psalm, around a century later, the Southern Kingdom, Judah, was conquered by the Babylonians, and its people deported; some survived and returned.
Chapters 40 to 55 of Isaiah deal with the Jewish exile in Babylon. Our reading today is from Chapter 56, the start of the third section of Isaiah’s book, which speaks about the promise of restoration to their homeland, and how the people should live their lives and build their new society.
The Bible is full of accounts of refugees; even Jesus own earthly parents were refugees when they fled to Egypt from the evil King Herod. Isaiah knew about refugees, even if the numbers involved were not recorded: the whole of the two Jewish kingdoms, Israel and Judah, were driven from their homes and faced the fate common to refugees throughout the years.
The US theologian Timothy Koch has this to say about Isaiah:
“The book of Isaiah names in unvarnished, even arch ways the techniques employed by those in power (governmental and/or religious) who would seek to keep an unjust hold on the people.”
(Koch, Timothy, “Isaiah”, in: “The Queer Bible Commentary”)
Our reading from Isaiah mentions specifically two groups in society: the “foreigner” and the “castrated” (or, in some translations, “eunuchs”). In many ways, this one passage from the Bible is a manifesto which outlines the work of the afternoon congregation of this church: to reach out and to minister to the LGBT people of Manchester and the North-West.
Several passages in the Bible mention “eunuchs”, and it is commonly accepted in progressive theology that the word “eunuch” is an ancient way of identifying gay men, i.e. men who don’t have relations with women. Even Jesus used description in Matthew 19:12 in His discourse on marriage, when He says that some men do not marry “because they were born that way”.
Taking on board the Bible’s euphemistic way of referring to gay men, and by analogy to all LGBT people, listen again to Isaiah’s powerful words of acceptance:
“A [gay person] should never think… ‘You can never be part of God's people… your name will be remembered in my Temple and among my people… You will never be forgotten.” (Isaiah 56:3,5)
Now let us look at what Isaiah had to say to “foreigners”. The message is again one of acceptance, not rejection.
“And the Lord says to those foreigners who become part of his people... ‘I will bring you to Zion, my sacred hill, [and] give you joy in my house of prayer.’” (Isaiah 56:6-7)
If we are brutally honest about the United Kingdom, particularly in the face of political events of recent years, some of the things said about foreigners, asylum seekers and immigrants by the more radical, right-wing politicians, who now seem to have the political upper-hand, are deeply worrying. Their xenophobic hysteria is completely at odds with Isaiah’s vision of acceptance and inclusion.
I mentioned that Isaiah did not mince his words when it came to bringing political and religious rulers to account: just a couple of verses beyond today’s reading, he had this to say about them:
“All the leaders, who are supposed to warn my people, are blind! They know nothing! … They are like greedy dogs that never get enough. These leaders have no understanding. They each do as they please and seek their own advantage.” (Isaiah 56:10-11)
Of the many politicians we have heard recently, for how many of them do these words of Isaiah ring true?
Isaiah’s vision of a post-exile Israel was and is beautiful one: a home for the refugee, a home for the asylum seeker, a home for LGBT people: a home for you; a home for everyone.
I would like to finish by looking again at the opening words in today’s reading: “The Lord says to his people: ‘Do what is just and right.’”